Microbial ecology (or environmental microbiology) is the ecology of microorganisms: their relationship with one another and with their environment. It concerns the three major domains of life—Eukaryota, Archaea, and Bacteria—as well as viruses.
Microorganisms, by their omnipresence, impact the entire biosphere. Microbial life plays a primary role in regulating biogeochemical systems in virtually all of our planet's environments, including some of the most extreme, from frozen environments and acidic lakes, to hydrothermal vents at the bottom of deepest oceans, and some of the most familiar, such as the human small intestine. As a consequence of the quantitative magnitude of microbial life (calculated as 5.0×1030 cells; eight orders of magnitude greater than the number of stars in the observable universe) microbes, by virtue of their biomass alone, constitute a significant carbon sink. Aside from carbon fixation, microorganisms' key collective metabolic processes (including nitrogen fixation, methane metabolism, and sulfur metabolism) control global biogeochemical cycling. The immensity of microorganisms' production is such that, even in the total absence of eukaryotic life, these processes would likely continue unchanged.
While microbes have been studied since the seventeenth-century, this research was from a primarily physiological perspective rather than an ecological one. For instance, Louis Pasteur and his disciples were interested in the problem of microbial distribution both on land and in the ocean. Martinus Beijerinck invented the enrichment culture, a fundamental method of studying microbes from the environment. He is often incorrectly credited with framing the microbial biogeographic idea that "everything is everywhere, but, the environment selects", which was stated by Lourens Baas Becking. Sergei Winogradsky was one of the first researchers to attempt to understand microorganisms outside of the medical context—making him among the first students of microbial ecology and environmental microbiology—discovering chemosynthesis, and developing the Winogradsky column in the process.
Microorganisms are the backbone of all ecosystems, but even more so in the zones where photosynthesis is unable to take place because of the absence of light. In such zones, chemosynthetic microbes provide energy and carbon to the other organisms. These chemotrophic organisms can also function in environments lacking oxygen by using other electron acceptors for their respiration.
Other microbes are decomposers, with the ability to recycle nutrients from other organisms' waste products. These microbes play a vital role in biogeochemical cycles. The nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, the sulphur cycle and the carbon cycle all depend on microorganisms in one way or another. For example, the nitrogen gas which makes up 78% of the earth's atmosphere is unavailable to most organisms, until it is converted to a biologically available form by the microbial process of nitrogen fixation.
Due to the high level of horizontal gene transfer among microbial communities, microbial ecology is also of importance to studies of evolution.
Microbes, especially bacteria, often engage in symbiotic relationships (either positive or negative) with other microorganisms or larger organisms. Although physically small, symbiotic relationships amongst microbes are significant in eukaryotic processes and their evolution. The types of symbiotic relationship that microbes participate in include mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, and amensalism, and these relationships affect the ecosystem in many ways.
Microbiology: Current Research